SBS launched its Face Up To Racism event with the documentary Is Australia Racist?, broadcast on the weekend. Branded with the wonderfully subversive #FU2Racism social media tagging, the television documentary was hosted by Ray Martin.
Although Martin built a career as a journalist for the likes of Four Corners and 60 Minutes, his years of gentle company on daily variety shows Midday with Ray Martin and Ray Martin Presents makes him familiar and mostly non-threatening. Clearly it was these moderate aspects of his presence that influenced the producer’s choice to use him as a somewhat safe introduction to a difficult issue for mainstream broadcast.
The documentary drew on a survey done by Professor Kevin Dunn and the Challenging Racism Project Team at Western Sydney University. The broadcaster described how the program put the survey findings into action “through a series of hidden camera social experiments, capturing the experience of racism through the eyes of those who have suffered it”.
As promised, throughout the hour-long program a series of scenarios were staged in public and responses filmed. Mostly, outbursts of hate were countered by outbursts of support. Especially striking was an incident where a young Muslim woman was asked to move on by police simply because she had been standing and listening at a Reclaim Australia-like event.
The police were concerned she might attract too much attention (and had been engaged in some conversation by some of the attendees), but when she was removed, two older women who were part of the event followed the police to confirm the Muslim woman’s peaceful attendance. “We can still talk to each other”, the women on both sides agreed. Even a very camera-friendly hug followed.
What was, sadly, unsurprising was how quickly a young indigenous man was aggressively apprehended by police while doing the same thing a young white man had done, unnoticed, only moments earlier. It certainly was uncomfortable viewing. The injustice was unbearable from a viewer’s perspective - imagine what it felt like for the young man and his family.
The elephant in the room was the role the media plays in race relations - it took until nearly the end of the hour for the program to get to it. In the last of the social experiments individual viewers were shown fake news stories framed in distinct ways – and their responses measured as part of what Martin and the survey referred to as “the framing effect”.
“You see, Ray … we’re organising reality”, featured advertising guru Bill Shannon said by way of explaining the effect and how it works.
He emphasised how emotive language was used in consultation with images and editing to dramatically change how the viewer understood the message and, more importantly, how they felt about it. Almost as if reading a script, respondents reacted with fear towards the first series of negative clips which featured dramatic music and evocative language suggesting criminality, threat and suspicion.
In contrast, the second set of images used voice over and images to focus on the human impact of these unknowns - families split and hopes for a better life abandoned. The respondents engaged with the intimacy of the individual stories and showed almost immediate sympathy.
At the end of the segment, Martin quoted a statistic from the survey, saying that the framing effect “worked in changing the views of 78% of our focus group”.
The real revelation of the documentary appeared when Martin, shot in front of a bland background, looked directly down the camera and said; “I probably shouldn’t have been, but I was a bit surprised by the impact that the media has on attitudes.”
How did this come as a surprise? Perhaps, like the rest of us viewing, reading, and listening, Martin has been beholden to the whims of the media for so long that he has forgotten what the outside is like.
Martin continued saying “we’ve seen from the experiments that we’ve done that people have their prejudices confirmed by media reports, even though it’s not true”. The energised surprise in his voice was most provoking.
Martin emphasised, “The need to question the news media, to question talk back radio, the need to question this documentary”. The word “question” hung in the air.
“Don’t take it at face value, what we’re telling you, because it’s very easy to manipulate people’s ideas”, Martin said, again direct to camera, still alone in a bland studio. While it wasn’t quite the spectacular call to arms that Jon Stewart offered during appeal to audience diligence (“If you smell something, say something!”), for Martin this was striking.
Martin’s outro to the program seemingly released the tension of the direct address. Instead he was shown walking through Melbourne’s Federation square and reporting, with his best Gold Logie-winning type address, on what he thinks the documentary had shown.
“I don’t think we’re a racist country … but how tolerant we are, that’s up to us”, he concluded. It was meant to be uplifting, but the “us” was ambiguous. “Us” the Australian people? “Us” as a culturally diverse nation? Or “us” the group who is so regularly manipulated by how things are framed that we barely notice anymore.